After the Bell: TikTok trapped in a clash of cultures
What does one make of the hearings in the US Congress this week on whether the US should ban the app TikTok? It’s a more important and wide-ranging issue than I guess many people might suspect, not least because TikTok is now the world’s most visited spot on the internet, with more than 2.5 billion daily active users.
TikTok CEO Shou Zi Chew faced questions from US legislators for five hours on Thursday in a congressional hearing, and his main job was to try to circumvent an ultimatum that the company should be separated from its Chinese parent ByteDance, or be banned altogether.
I’ve gone through a little journey on the issue. At the outset, I really hate the idea that any government should even consider banning any kind of media, particularly one that specialises in 10-second videos of people dancing in sync, showing off their air fryers, or recommending books to read. You might say, well, as a member of the media yourself, you would say that. But of course, this is much more than just an in-house concern.
I don’t think I need to justify free media; but for one thing, it’s clear that over the long term, economic and media freedom are intertwined. Obviously, it’s possible for a country in the short term to restrict media freedom and improve economically, as the recent histories of China and Singapore show. The inverse is also true; South Africa has fabulous media freedom, but it doesn’t seem to have helped economic growth much. Free media needs people in power to actually listen for economic progress to take place, but that is another issue.
Innovation and progress
Economic freedom and media freedom do tend to reinforce each other by suggesting areas of possible innovation for entrepreneurs, reflecting their progress, pointing out problems that the government and the private sector might need to solve, generating understanding and offering solutions. And that is just the start of it. If your economy is based on simply copying others, well, media freedom is probably unnecessary. But for real economic innovation and progress, media freedom is crucial.
Yes, it’s noisy and frequently uncomfortable. And, as it happens, the media often get it wrong. My sister says, affectionately, the problem with journalists is that they either get it wrong or they spell it wrong. She is a teacher — could you guess? But on the whole, successful countries have a free media; it’s an ironclad law.
Recent research shows that countries clamping down on free media lose between 1% and 2% in economic growth in subsequent years. Furthermore, the restoration of media freedom does not seem to bring back that growth. A good example is Hong Kong, which has seen its free media decimated over the past decade in an almost exact correlation with its declining economic growth.
Anyway, the problem is that the more you examine how TikTok is run and what it does, you begin to understand why the Americans are so upset.
Only last year, there was an information leak from within the company at TikTok that Chinese authorities were routinely accessing the company’s data (which, rather creepily, includes monitoring your keystrokes). That was, of course, embarrassing. So what did they do? They tried to find the leak by matching the location data of three Forbes reporters with location data from their own employees to see if they could find the leaker.
In case you think this is shocking, the following organisations have in the past allegedly done more or less the same thing for more or less the same reason: Uber and Facebook. So, you know, it’s kinda standard in the industry. When you have access to that information, it is very tempting to use it.
Anyway, after the US government began investigating a criminal complaint about the issue, TikTok quickly admitted what it had done, fired the people involved, and started a process of moving information it had collected from its US clients on to the US mainland. Shou highlighted this decision at the hearing, as well as providing other undertakings about personal privacy and corporate responsibility.
Privacy nonsense and a culture clash
The problem is that everybody knows this is nonsense. None of the social media organisations keeps your personal information private, because they can’t. They rely absolutely on advertising and their advertisers want to know who is likely to see their adverts. Their whole business model is based on a kind of devil’s compact: we, the clients, forgo our privacy to a certain extent as long as you, the platform, provide a useful service free and don’t overload us with ads.
But there is a bigger problem here, and that is the clashing cultures of the US and Chinese governments. The Chinese government thinks absolutely nothing of monitoring, to the nth degree, its citizens, and by and large, its citizens seem to put up with it. The relationship between citizen and state in China is that of servitude.
The whole ethos of the US Constitution, and of course ours in SA, as it happens, is that the state is notionally the service organisation which acts on behalf of us as individual citizens. The US has a constitution and more than 200 years of laws that underpin this idea, starting with the opening line of the US Constitution: “We the people …”. Not accidentally, SA’s Constitution starts with the same words.
My guess is that the Chinese government doesn’t really get what the problem is and, consequently, it took the extraordinary step of announcing that it will “strenuously resist” any attempt to force the sale of the company. That, of course, completely undermines the company’s protestations that it is not influenced by the Chinese government. The Chinese government, not without reason, clearly considers the company its plaything.
Other media organisations, like Facebook and Google in the US, have gone through the same grilling as Shou went through this week, along with lots of threats of pending legislation. And then nothing happened.
The problem is that the global situation is so tense that in this case, something might just happen, and to me, that would be very disappointing. Surely, on the relatively mundane issue of a popular entertainment platform, the US and Chinese authorities could cut a deal? If they can’t, it will show exactly what a parlous state the world is now in. DM/BM